Victims of the horrors at St Ninians deserve our attention

Sunday National, 21st February.

“The overall view I formed of St Ninian’s was depressing. The institution was established in naivety, on the basis of facile assumptions and burdensome borrowings. Brothers and staff (and visitors) included paedophiles, violent men, and inadequate teachers. It was an undesirable outpost, remote from the Order’s centre of operations in Great Britain. Causes for concern were known about, noted in reports, but not acted upon. There was confusion over its own status. It was a place that immersed some children in a culture of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, a place where – during its limited life (1951 83) – the positives were achieved more by good luck than by good management. The latter was absent and was, instead, characterised by remarkable ineptitude. Such was St Ninian’s.”

It is a devastating opening paragraph, and one that I’m worried you may not have heard. This week, the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry published its latest findings. Lady Smith’s fourth case study focused on the Christian Brothers’ operations in Fife over four decades. This week’s findings are perhaps the worst so far, but the basic inhumanity of St Ninian’s is horribly consistent with the failures and failings of institutions run by The Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Nazareth, Quarriers, Aberlour and Barnardos.

These weren’t caring institutions, but playgrounds for sadists and inadequates. These weren’t educational places where children’s talents were fostered and their gifts promoted – but for many of the young people unlucky enough to fall into them, places of hardship, hardness and impossible suffering.

Much of the Scottish media seems inclined to turn away from Lady Smith’s findings. Part of me understands why. For some, the pain of the testimonies is too profound, the details of how grown adults treated children may feel too raw, too harrowing, too desolate to confront. I’d simply observe this: our political culture is routinely outraged by nonsense, and unmoved by real scandals. It is easy to enjoy being angry, when the stakes are so low – but here, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Hard and sickening as it is, for the sake of survivors, for all the people whose childhoods were blighted by these Scottish institution – what happened to them demands our full attention.

To modern sensibilities, it is difficult to fathom the remarkable irresponsibility of St Ninian’s founding principles. One witnessed described it as “facile presumption.” In 1947, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh invited the Christian Brothers to set up a school in Scotland. An isolated castle in Fife was identified, leased and opened. From the outset, the Brothers tasked with the care of these children were singularly “ill-equipped for the task.”

A religious community of notionally celibate men with no training or qualifications in childcare or education, lacking life-experience, a significant number of the Christian Brothers responsible for the misrule at St Ninian’s “joined the
Congregation when they were themselves children.”

Records show most of the kids consigned to this institution in the early years were from Glasgow, transferred into the school from residential care elsewhere, “so as to populate St Ninian’s with Catholic children.” Some appear to have occurred “because the transferring institution wanted to get rid of the child.” By 1953, there were over 70 children at Falkland, and an average of around 45 in the years that followed, usually presided over by just Five Christian Brothers.

So began four decades of bad education, violence and sexual abuse – and the Scottish state indirectly facilitated that enterprise. In March 1950, the Scottish Education Department made a grant towards school expenses and confirmed that Scottish local authorities would pay maintenance fees for children referred to the Brothers. Lady Smith quotes from a government inspection report from 1972, written some 10 years before Ninian’s was shuttered for good: “It is at least arguable that this isolated establishment – isolated in every possible way – is a basic administrative anomaly and mistake,” the author said.

As the University of Glasgow historian Dr Charlie Lynch observes, this lack of realism about the implications of turning over generations of children to untrained men was “doubtless facilitated by vague ideas on the part of the state along the lines of ‘Christians are good’ without wishing to investigate who they were or what qualifications they had.” Hundreds of children suffered as a consequence of that official naiveté. Or perhaps it was official indifference, in the end, to the fates of these dispensable young people.

The savagery and corruption of institutions like St Ninian’s fell indefensibly beyond the social and legal conventions of the time. But reading all four of the Inquiry’s case studies has left me struck by the routine quality of the interpersonal violence in teaching environments described at this time.

Many of you will have experienced the banal violence of what was once a Scottish education for yourselves. It isn’t widely known that it was two Scottish mothers who helped bring an end to corporal punishment in public schools. Grace Campbell was a medical secretary in Glasgow. Her six-year-old son, Gordon, attended St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Bishopbriggs. Physical punishment was standard practice in the institution – but one Grace Campbell doesn’t seem to have held with. She sought guarantees from Strathclyde Regional Council that her son would not be belted – but was rebuffed.

In March 1976, she sent a letter to the European Court of Human Rights. In the same year, on the other side of the country, a 15-year-old boy called Jeffrey Cosans was breaking school rules. A pupil at Beath Senior High School in Cowdenbeath, the assistant headmaster caught Jeffrey attempting to take a prohibited shortcut home through a nearby cemetery.

Jeffrey was told to report to his office the following morning for punishment. And punishment meant only one thing. It may strike you as an irony of history that the legal story which ended in the abolition of corporal punishment in Scottish schools began just a few miles down the road from Lochgelly – the town which became a byword for the leather tawses manufactured by John Dick (Saddlers) and which cracked in the hands of dominies and their pupils across Scotland.

Jeffrey presented himself the next morning, but refused to accept corporeal punishment. In response, he was immediately suspended until such time as he was prepared to submit. Three and a half months later, the Senior Assistant Director of Education of the Fife Regional Council wrote to the family to tell them that the boy could be readmitted, but only on condition that “Jeffrey will obey the rules, regulations or disciplinary requirements of the school” – including the threat of the tawse. 

But the Cosans weren’t having it. Jeffrey’s suspension remained unlifted and the family were threatened with prosecution over his non-attendance. Like Grace Campbell, Jane Cosans decided to write a letter to the European Court of Human Rights. In 1982, the Court found in their favour.

As Kathleen Marshall – a solicitor and former Scottish Children’s commissioner – has written, the evidence from school punishment books “shows a recurring pattern of beatings for very minor transgressions” for decades. Experience of violence at school was the rule, rather than the exception. She records one study from Edinburgh discovered “10,000 uses of the belt on only 70,000 pupils” in 1974.

An EIS survey three years later confirmed that a full third of 12- to 15-year-old boys were belted at least once in 10 school days, and that just under a quarter faced the tawse three or more times during that period. Marshall records that in 1980, Edinburgh University surveyed 40,000 school leavers finding that only 5% of children had gone through secondary school without being belted. And this only captures the official, accounted for violence meted out by adult teaching staff.

I find myself wondering, now, what effect these experiences had on generations of Scots? “It never did me any harm” is the defensive cliché – but I’m not so sure. Talking to my parents, and people of my parents’ generations and older, I’m struck by the fact that they all have stories about the belt, the ruler, the thrown duster, and the capriciousness and injustice of teachers with a lack of self-control or a commitment to professional sadism that would see you on a register if they behaved that way today.

The conduct of the Christian Brothers was of a different order of malice, incompetence and depravity – but it is often said Scottish education “used to be the envy of the world.” As well as shining an unforgiving light on institutions like St Ninian’s, when it comes to Scottish education, perhaps Lady Smith’s inquiry should prompt a wider reappraisal of rose- tinted memories.

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